Leaders often believe that purpose is synonymous with their company mission statement. In actuality, there is a distinct difference. Your purpose defines WHY you do what you do. Your mission statement defines WHAT you do. A purpose-driven brand is transformational rather than transactional.
When a company’s purpose is at the foundation of everything they do, it changes the way people experience that brand, creating more engaged, loyal customers – and ultimately, more revenue. There was a time when the product or service itself (and all its bells, whistles, or accolades) was at the center of the marketing universe: the very substance of all advertising content. But, what compels a great campaign today is less about what you offer, and more about the direct impact you have on customers’ lives.
In his inspirational 2009 TED Talk, Simon Sinek, Founder of Start With Why, famously urged leaders to do just that: “start with why” by asking why you do what you do, rather than what or how you do it. He said, “People don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it and what you do simply proves what you believe.”
Ignoring or dismissing purpose can be disastrous for a company, in terms of both customer and employee loyalty. This notion came to a culmination in 2015, when a conference was held in New York City—a “Purpose Summit”— that for the first time expressly addressed issues of purpose in corporate and marketing culture. And just last year, a study done by The Society for Human Resource Management found that 94% of trained, young creatives in the job market primarily desire a position at a company that has a clear and real sense of purpose. Bottom line: your employees want to know that they are having an impact and making a tangible difference in the world.
Oftentimes companies already have a handle on their mission, so they mistakenly believe that they are also articulating their purpose. For us, it has been a trial to parse that out and be clear about why the difference is so important. Every client engagement at TopRight starts with the brand’s Story. When we ask clients to articulate what they do, they have that part down pat. It’s the easiest question. When we ask, “Why?” – that’s when we get uncomfortable, blank stares or the most disparate answers during the discussion. And for good reason. It’s a tough question that invokes an almost spiritual struggle – Why do we do what we do? What is the impact we have on our customers’ lives…on the world around us? Do we even have a purpose?
The answer is yes, your company does have a purpose – it just sometimes takes a process of coaching and discovery to reveal it. Start by asking yourself, “Why do I do what I do?” Then take that information and be honest with your team. Talk about it openly and articulate your values and the impact you hope to have. As a purveyor of a product or service, it could be that your purpose is to create beautiful objects that people love and enjoy. Or, your purpose may be more intangible, having to do with our time on this planet, how we spend it, and our environmental footprint on this earth. That kind of sincere struggle with real purpose—when it’s most honest and difficult—can bring marketing opportunities to the surface that you never thought possible. So talk about it with your team, be open about it, and risk sounding a little wistful or vulnerable when you do. The success of your brand may depend on what you uncover.
Famously, Steve Jobs’ personal purpose was to “make a dent in the universe,” and that certainly transcended into everything Apple is now known for. In the 1950s another visionary leader, Yvon Chouinard began producing equipment for fellow climbers in Yosemite Valley. His purpose: connect people with nature and help reverse the steep decline in the overall environmental health of our planet. Decades later his company, Patagonia, is worth over $200 million dollars and has created a community of loyal, brand advocates and environmentalists. Both Jobs and Chouinard made intuitive business choices along the way that a purely pragmatic or mission-driven CEO would not have made.
Essentially, instead of going for immediate profit gains, they chose to pursue goals that aligned with their purpose. For instance, in Patagonia’s early stages, Chouinard became aware that the use of steel pitons by rock climbers was causing significant damage to the cracks of Yosemite. Even though this specific product accounted for 70% of the company’s revenue at the time, it went against everything that they stood for. The upfront hit that the company took ended up being far less significant than the longterm damage that would have occurred had he disregarded the company’s purpose. Later, Chouinard took another risk when he decided to use only 100% organic cotton in Patagonia’s clothing line —a seemingly-damaging, and definitely-risky decision at the time. What he knew though, was that the authenticity of his choices would be communicated through his products to his consumers. And he was right. Patagonia is a reliable brand that outdoor enthusiasts and environmental advocates can turn to, knowing intuitively that its purpose is genuine and its quality irreproachable. And despite losing a bit of money at the time, Patagonia is now worth far more than it was before its shift to organic.
Being laser-focused on purpose can be tough—as it should be. But the longer you put it off, the longer you delay the great rewards that come with defining why you do what you do. A recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychology also stated that companies who have a leadership team with a clear sense of purpose, succeed more often and at a higher rate, than others. There is often a misconception that a company can either be purpose-driven or profit-driven. This simply isn’t true. Purpose-driven and profit-driven are not mutually exclusive terms, and in fact, can hinge on one another. When purpose is at the forefront and woven into your brand narrative, profit becomes a result.
For more examples and successful case studies about purpose-driven leadership and brands that start with WHY, check out my new book, Marketing, Interrupted. In it, I challenge marketers to transform their approach and take a new path. That path starts with your Story—how that empowers your customer, which shapes and defines everything about you—and your position in the market. Focus on this, and you will accelerate your ability to stand out as a visionary organization and be at the trailhead to building a brand that lasts.